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Education

Welsh coalition says ‘no’ to proposed school year changes

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A COALITION of trade unions, Welsh tourism organisations, and farming, are calling on the Welsh government to scrap its proposed reform of the school year.

This proposed Government reform would reduce the number of weeks in the school summer holidays from the present six weeks down to five. The week taken from the summer holidays would be added to the Autumn half term. However, the Welsh Governments long term aim would be to further reduce the summer school holidays down to just four weeks!

The Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions state that many attractions take over 45% of their entire yearly income during the school summer holidays, and any loss of summer revenue would lead to closures and job losses. To put a key summer week into an extra week in the Autumn half term would mean a loss of tens of thousands of pounds for many Welsh attractions. Furthermore, the past two Autumn half terms have been plagued by massive storms leading to some attractions being forced to close.

At a time when established attractions are closing down it is unfathomable why no research has been done by the Government as to the likely damage this proposal would do to tourism in Wales.

The tourist industry also employs many young people during the summer break period. The current six-week period allows time to train and properly engage with, youngsters, many of whom are experiencing their first opportunity in the workplace. Many will be denied this opportunity if the holiday periods are cut short by these proposals.

The Teaching Unions claim that a week taken from the crucial autumn term and placed in the quieter post-examination period, is not supported by research and would damage learning. The summer break is already amongst the shortest in Europe. The educational reasons the Welsh Government give for the reforms are not substantiated by research, including the view that there is a detriment to children’s learning. Countries that appear above Wales in the PISA league tables have significantly longer summer breaks.

Farming representatives (NFU) also have concerns about the proposed reform – arguing that many farming businesses that have diversified into the tourism sector benefit from a six-week peak season where the weather is far more favourable for visitors to enjoy the countryside and Wales’ visitor attractions. Under the proposals, visitors will be faced with limited time in the summer to enjoy Wales at its finest.

Organisers of the Royal Welsh Show claim that it could lose £1 million a year if the change goes ahead. The show is the largest agricultural event of its kind in Europe and, as such, affords Wales the opportunity of international attention.

The coalition is calling upon the Welsh Government to withdraw these proposals and redirect its energies to the real challenges that face Wales and to stop fighting unnecessary battles.

Open letter to Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education, regarding the reform of the school year
Copied to Welsh Government Cabinet

Dear Minister,
We write to you to express our deep concern at the decision of the Welsh Government to engage in a public consultation over the reform of the school year, when there has been no serious attempt to engage appropriately with the sectors and organisations that represent the many people across Wales
who will be detrimentally affected by the recommendations that have been presented. We believe that there is limited recent and relevant research that supports the recommendations and that they are based upon a long-held prejudice regarding the school summer break.

This proposal runs the risk of fixing a problem that does not exist, when there is also little public appetite for such a change. In the Welsh Government- commissioned Beaufort Report, the key findings state that ‘the majority of participants were content with the shape of the current school year’

All of the education unions are in complete agreement that the reform of the school year proposals are unacceptable. The summer break is already amongst the shortest in Europe. The educational reasons the Welsh Government give for the reforms are not substantiated by research, including the view that there is a detriment to children’s learning. Countries that appear above Wales in the PISA league tables have significantly longer summer breaks. We would argue that the proposed changes will actually do damage to secondary learners, as a week is taken from the crucial autumn term and transferred to the quieter post- examination period. Every secondary teacher knows that this is a serious error.

The education unions are also incredulous that, at a time when schools are facing a crisis in funding, recruitment and pupil behaviour, the Welsh Government should be so engaged in this entirely unnecessary distraction. Representatives from the tourist industry, the second largest employer in Wales, have also expressed their dismay at the formal consultation. The proposed change to the summer break will lead to some attractions closing and jobs being lost. Many attractions take over 45% of their entire annual income in the current summer holidays. The proposal to add a week to the October half term would be a disaster for many, especially those in rural/mountainous areas where the weather at that time of year can be grim, and would mean an 80% reduction in revenue for that week if compared to
the one lost in the summer term. Last October, in half term, Wales endured a named storm and many attractions had to close on the Thursday of that week and did not reopen for the rest of the week. The tourist industry also employs many young people during the summer break period. The current
six-week period allows time to train and properly engage with, youngsters, many of whom are experiencing their first opportunity in the workplace. Many will be denied this opportunity if the holiday periods are cut short by these proposals.

Farming representatives also have concerns about the proposed reform – arguing that many farming businesses that have diversified into the tourism sector benefit from a six-week peak season where the weather is far more favourable for visitors to enjoy the countryside and Wales’ visitor attractions.
Under the proposals, visitors will be faced with limited time in the summer to enjoy Wales at its finest. There is also concern where there are ‘honey pot’ areas, confining the timeframe with an increased number of visitors to these parts, will impact on those running farming businesses in rural Wales causing
disruption, especially in coastal areas or National Parks. The prospect of shorter days associated with an extended October half-term break will not be as enjoyable and could result in the loss of these visitors as holidays are taken abroad.

Farmers are also concerned about the impact on the Royal Welsh Show. This is a wonderful vocational educational experience for the next generation of farmers as well as being the one opportunity a year when many farming families are able spend time together away from the farm. The Royal Welsh Agricultural Society (RWAS) has already publicly stated that schools remaining open during show week could lead to an estimated £1 million loss of revenue and thus endanger its future viability. Sixty-eight per cent of show visitors attend as part of a family group. If it is term time in Wales during Royal
Welsh Show week, young people and those working in schools will be denied the opportunity to attend the show legally with their families. They will also be denied the opportunity to compete in its events, and the show will be denied its role in the education of Welsh youngsters, which is to help them develop
into rounded individuals who will contribute to Wales’ future prosperity. The RWAS has stated that it does not wish to negatively impact other agricultural shows and national events, such as the Eisteddfod, which follow the Royal Welsh Show in the calendar by moving its own dates. Indeed, as many of these events share the same contractors and vendors, it is unlikely that moving show dates to accommodate a change in school holidays would be viable. The show is the largest agricultural event of its kind in Europe and, as
such, affords Wales the opportunity of international attention. It embodies the Welsh Government’s vision of a Wales which, as outlined in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, prospers in regards to its people, culture and economy. Endangering the show’s future by having schools open during the
event also endangers Wales’s future prosperity.

We call upon the Welsh Government to withdraw its proposals to reform the school year. Experts in education, tourism and agriculture have all argued strongly against these proposals as the Welsh Government is not addressing these concerns. We believe that these proposals do not come from relevant and recent research and will not best support children in their learning. The arguments against these proposals that we state in this letter are just a few of many arguments that we have all repeated time and again to Welsh Government officials, but no one is listening. Possibly of greater concern are
all the unintended consequences that will surface only after the damage is done. We call upon the Welsh Government to withdraw these proposals and redirect its energies to the real challenges that face Wales and to stop fighting unnecessary battles.

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Education

Estyn decision to scrap headline gradings has ‘lifted a burden’ on schools

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Estyn’s decision to remove gradings such as “excellent”, “adequate” or “needs improvement” from inspection reports has lifted a burden on schools, a committee heard.

Owen Evans, Estyn’s chief inspector, told the Senedd’s education committee that feedback from schools since scrapping the headline gradings has been overwhelmingly positive.

Giving evidence on Estyn’s 2022-23 report, Mr. Evans said the new approach has led to a far more professional dialogue with schools about what’s working and what’s not.

“I think that’s been incredibly refreshing,” he said. “There are several layers of pressure that come with an Estyn inspection of a school….

“The removal of summative judgements and the fact that you’re going to be labelled with that one word, has lifted a burden on the sectors that we look at.”

‘Outlier’

However, Mr Evans stressed that removing gradings must be seen as a trial.

He said: “We are a bit of an outlier. We are still the only inspectorate in the British Isles that has removed summative judgements and a lot of eyes are on us about how this is working.”

Mr Evans, who has been in post for two years, added that Estyn is likely to carry out a review to ensure the reforms have led to further improvements.

He said it was important to introduce parental reports given the removal of gradings, suggesting that reports for learners themselves could also be on the horizon.

Asked about Estyn’s funding, which has increased from £11.5m in 2021-22 to £16m currently, Mr Evans told the committee the uplift was due to the pandemic.

‘Backlog’

He told the committee the interruption created a huge backlog and Estyn needed to increase capacity to finish its six-year cycle of inspections by the end of the current academic year.

Mr Evans said 90%-plus of the uplift has gone on additional inspections and inspectors.

Arguing the additional funding should become a part of the inspectorate’s baseline budget, he told MSs that Estyn will start visiting schools twice every six years from September.

He explained that the main inspection has been slightly curtailed, so Estyn can afford to have an interim inspection after three years rather than a “big bang” every six.

“It’s imperative the budget stays at that or slightly higher,” he said. “But we realise there’s a lot of pressure on the system – we have to demonstrate the value of what we’re doing.”

‘Self-evaluation’

Laura Anne Jones, for the Conservatives, raised concerns about an emphasis on self-evaluation, saying: “I don’t think anyone’s going to mark themselves badly.”

Laura Anne Jones MS speaking in the Senedd
South Wales East MS Laura Anne Jones MS is the Conservative shadow education minister

Mr Evans shared the shadow education minister’s concerns as he warned that self-evaluation is not yet strong enough within schools for Estyn to rely on it.

The chief inspector, who was previously S4C’s chief executive and a senior Welsh Government civil servant, warned that the pandemic continues to cast a shadow.

Mr Evans said variability between schools has widened, raising attendance as an example.

“Some are coping and some are not,” he told MSs: “I think the social contract between schools and parents has, to a degree, broken down.”

‘Stubborn’

Claire Morgan, a strategic director at Estyn, said average attendance is 87.5%, meaning pupils are missing 12 days of education in an academic year “which is far too much”.

She called for more to be done to tackle “stubborn” attendance issues, saying successful schools have a strong community focus.

Mr Evans said exclusions are rising while the number of children and young people going into pupil referral units has doubled since the pandemic.  

He said pupil referral units are no longer helping learners return to mainstream education.

He said: “The wave of anecdote I hear – from everyone from headteachers to teachers and caretakers to support staff – is behaviour, particularly out of the classroom, has worsened.”

‘Relentless’

On Wales’ poor performance in the latest Pisa results, Mr Evans said he was disappointed but not shocked as he called for a “relentless” focus on standards.

He said the results reinforce Estyn’s previous annual reports, which have long raised concerns about numeracy, science and literacy.

Mr Evans suggested a focus on the new curriculum has taken away from subject specialism.

Asked about the impact of poverty on attainment, he said the pupil development grant can make a difference but he suggested the funding is being used to plug budget gaps.

The chief inspector also raised concerns about “great deficiencies” in recruiting teachers in terms of the Welsh language and secondary school subjects such as maths.

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Education

Castle School closure certain now rescue plan has failed

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PARENTS have been informed that the highly regarded Castle School, a beacon of independent education since its establishment in 2009 in Cresselly, is on the verge of closing down, with no rescue plan in sight.

The institution, which began with a mere 22 secondary-aged pupils, saw significant growth over the years, relocating to Narberth in 2015 and later to Haverfordwest. The school, known for its broad curriculum catering to pupils from the age of three to 18, prides itself on an ‘exceptionally high academic performance’, boasting an average of 95 per cent A*-C grades at GCSE.

Despite its academic success, the school announced earlier this month that it would be shutting its doors to the majority of its pupils come July, though it will remain operational for current GCSE and A Level students until their examinations are completed the following year.

Harriet Harrison, the headteacher and proprietor, expressed that the decision to close was made with a ‘heavy heart’ and after considerable deliberation. The news has left many parents in a scramble to secure alternative educational arrangements for their children.

A glimmer of hope appeared when Dr Mark Boulcott, a local dentist and retired army officer with a daughter at the school, presented a rescue plan. “I am doing what I can as quickly as I can. I am doing my very best to stop the closure of a great school,” Dr Boulcott stated, signalling his commitment to prevent the closure.

The school was envisioned to transition into a charitable organisation, with Dr Boulcott collaborating with Mrs Harrison until the end of this academic year before assuming full leadership in July. Unfortunately, this plan has been rendered unviable, with Dr Boulcott disclosing that from a business standpoint, the school’s recovery from the Covid crisis was insurmountable under the current conditions, making the prospect of taking over ‘untenable’.

In an earnest letter to the parents, which was obtained by The Pembrokeshire Herald, Dr Boulcott lamented that the challenges of establishing the school elsewhere were too great, necessitating a considerable investment and an estimated two years to navigate bureaucratic hurdles.

“It is with regret that without immediate extensive capital investment, something we do not have, school purchase resurrection or reorganisation is impossible,” Dr Boulcott concluded in his correspondence with the parents, effectively extinguishing the last embers of hope for the school’s survival.

As the community grapples with the impending loss of Castle School, the situation underscores the continuing pressures faced by independent educational institutions in the post-pandemic landscape.

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Education

Childcare students beat to the rhythm in inspirational drumming workshop

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PEMBROKESHIRE COLLEGE’S Childcare students recently had the enriching opportunity to participate in a captivating drumming workshop led by Lox, where they not only delved into the vibrant rhythms of African drums but also gained insights into Lox’s philanthropic endeavours through his charity, Love Your Neighbour.

The workshop offered an immersive experience into Lox’s upbringing in Kenya, where drums were not just instruments but integral components of culture and community. Through engaging discussions, Lox shared his journey and shed light on the impactful work his charity undertakes, particularly in supporting social and educational projects in Kilfi, Kenya.

Lauren Owen, a Childcare lecturer at Pembrokeshire College, expressed her enthusiasm about the session, stating, “During our session with Lox, we were able to learn about the importance of music in our lives and the significance of offering musical opportunities to children. We discussed the role of music in self-expression, celebration, and community cohesion.”

Students echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the value of incorporating music into children’s developmental activities. One student remarked, “The session gave us so much to think about – valuing music as a key developmental tool for children, as well as considering the wider impact music can have on us all. A big thank you to Lox.”

The workshop not only provided an avenue for cultural exchange but also equipped students with practical insights into incorporating music into their childcare practices. They learned key musical rhythms and explored ways to integrate music for children’s holistic development, fostering creativity, expression, and social interaction.

Moreover, discussions on the barriers to education faced by young people in Kenya offered a broader perspective on global challenges and the role of education in fostering positive change.

To find out more about the Childcare courses offered at the College, please visit: www.pembrokeshire.ac.uk

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